Boy am I out-of-it. Did you know that they made a movie about Dr. King’s speech? Apparently, it is really good, won an Oscar, and stars someone named Colin Firth, who I don’t think is even black.
But I am not completely out of it. I do know that last week Whoopi Goldberg opined on the subject of Governor Cuomo of New York receiving Holy Communion.
But look. This is a golden opportunity for a metaphysical analysis of a moral choice.
For obvious reasons, I will approach it here from the point-of-view of the person giving out Holy Communion.
Crucial point #1: Whenever moral evil of any kind presents itself, perhaps the first question a person should ask himself is, “Whose conscience is this going to be on?”
Aha! We have found the Original Metaphysical Principle for morals: I am morally responsible only for those acts or omissions which are imputable to me.
(In my limited experience with helping people exercise moral discernment, the clarification of who is morally responsible resolves the matter 95% of the time.)
Let’s apply this to the matter at hand. If I am giving out Holy Communion, there are various ways I could do evil. Interiorly, I could doubt the Real Presence or fail to adore the Lord in the sacrament. I could let my mind wander. If I weren’t a priest, I could absurdly think of what I am doing as “my” ministry, rather than as a simple act of charity to help Father in the interest of time or convenience. I could vainly focus on myself instead of trying to disappear behind Christ.
Exteriorly, I could imprudently misjudge my physical or psychological capacity to perform this ministry. I could be negligent in my handling of the vessels. Probably the gravest evil I could do—short of intentionally desecrating the sacrament—would be to act out of human respect in giving out communion. It pretty much goes without saying that the duty of a minister of Holy Communion is to minister the sacrament to those who approach to receive it, no matter who they are, what they look like, how they smell, how they are dressed, etc.
At the same time, the prohibition against acting out of human respect can cut the other way, too. Churches are public places; people who have no idea what they are doing can find themselves in Catholic churches for one reason or another. Visibly out-of-place people often wind up wandering forward in communion processions. The proper thing under such circumstances is kindly to direct the person back to his or her seat. If there is a doubt, a quiet “Are you Catholic?” usually clears the matter up.
My own interior state and my prudent, self-possessed execution of my duty burden my conscience as a minister of Holy Communion. The interior state of other people in the church, thank God, does not. If someone approaches me and makes a sacrilegious communion because he or she does not believe or has not repented of grave sins, it is a terrible thing—but it is not on my conscience. (Provided, of course, that as a teacher and shepherd I have explained to my people how we examine our worthiness to receive Holy Communion.)
Now the $10,000 question: Are there circumstances under which I should refuse to give Holy Communion to someone who approaches in earnest as part of the exercise of his or her Catholic faith?
Receiving Holy Communion in church is a public act. To see someone receive Holy Communion has the potential to edify or disedify the observer. As the minister of Holy Communion, it falls to me to judge whether it would be a scandal to give Holy Communion to someone.
In one essay on this subject, a skilled canonist claimed that the decision about whether or not to give Holy Communion to someone falls to the local bishop. This is not true. Yes, a minister of Holy Communion cannot give the sacrament to anyone he knows to have been excommunicated or interdicted from communion by Church authority. But as for being the judge about whether giving Holy Communion would be a scandal in any other case, this falls not to the diocesan authority but to the minister of Holy Communion himself.
It makes no sense publicly to call for the bishop to “apply Canon 915.” If there is a case to be made for a miscreant’s interdiction, let the case be made in the proper venue.
Have I personally ever felt duty-bound to speak to someone privately and tell him not to come to communion? Yes. Has everyone to whom I so spoke complied? No. Did I then refuse to give the person Holy Communion? No. Under the circumstances, for me to refuse to give communion would have been the bigger scandal.
I am not claiming that a different priest would have reached the same conclusion. My point is: There are distinct ministers of Holy Communion who will someday answer to God for having given the sacrament to various princes and potentates who perhaps should have been refused. If you are in a position to offer informed counsel to any of these people, I say go for it. Otherwise, I think we should all pick up the phone and dial 1-800-MIND-YOUR-BUSINESS.